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The jig is up: Behind the yearslong reveal of Frog Fractions 2

An oral history of the game before the game inside the game

I wrote last year about the bizarre alternate reality game leading up to Frog Fractions 2. In the ensuing year, leading up to the recent launch of Frog Fractions 2, the ARG has only gotten more complex and esoteric. If you’ve got a head for this sort of thing, you can read the entire history of the game here, but it would be folly for me to try to sum the whole bizarre journey up. Instead, I spoke with a few of those who had crafted the game and willing took up the task of making an experience that was a suitably odd follow up to one of the single oddest games ever made.

The players:

Jim Crawford: developer of Frog Fractions 2 and original orchestrator of the ARG

Justin Bortnick: a writer on Frog Fractions 2

Erica Newman: a former member of the ARG solving squad who took control of the game in the final two months

The game began all the way back in 2014 when Frog Fractions 2 was announced via Kickstarter. FF2 developer Jim Crawford knew that traditional marketing would be out of his reach and needed a more unorthodox approach.

Jim Crawford: I can't do regular marketing. It's just not something that this game is amenable to. Thank god, because I hate regular marketing. People say you're supposed to spend ... I saw a percentage but now I forget what the number was, so I'm sure I'm getting the proportions wrong. People say you're supposed to spend a certain percentage of your time, as an indie developer, doing marketing as opposed to development. I guess that's what this is.

Specifically because of that, I just decided I'm not going to give people any help. If some people never get a puzzle, that's fine. In part of the art [Polygon] covered, there was a puzzle, there was an ARG file that had a password, that was password protected, and it took people something like six months to figure out the password. This was a puzzle that I thought was pretty obvious, but eventually they got it. The fact that I was willing to let them just stew in their own juices for six months and not give them any additional help, I really think that sets a certain tone, you know? It makes people realize that that's the kind of game designer they're dealing with, and it also actually lends plausibility to the idea that Frog Fractions 2 has always been out, and they just need to find it.

Crawford took the initial lead in crafting the ARG, which included an Obama shaving simulator, bug porn and time-traveling kidnappers. Around the middle of 2015, development began to stall, at which point control of the game changed hands.

Justin Bortnick: I got involved with the ARG in June of 2015 — everything that had happened before that Jim had done himself. We recorded an episode of my podcast together, and after we finished I asked him how the ARG was going, and he admitted that he had run out of content and that things had stagnated — the Kickstarter was in March 2014 and from that May until we recorded that show, things had stalled.

I had experimented with making an ARG-type experience that I wanted to anonymously send to Kevin and Riff from the Kingdom of Loathing team, but I wasn’t a good enough programmer to see the project to fruition so I told Jim that if he wanted he could just commandeer that content. Instead he said I should just take over running the ARG, so I did.

Bortnick hid passwords and hints in podcasts (only decodable through use of a spectrograph), in Super Mario Maker levels, even in the comments of the original Polygon article on the ARG.

Players who called and left a number were contacted by the “Bug Mars Travel Agency” and given clues that would lead them down another one of the ARG’s innumerable rabbit holes.

At every turn, Crawford and Bortnick’s clues were being rabidly dissected by a dogged community obsessed with the idea that they were getting ever nearer to unlocking the secrets of Frog Fractions 2. Bortnick was consistently impressed by how quickly they solved even the most inscrutable puzzles. He jokingly offered this advice to other indies who might consider an ARG for promotion:

Bortnick: Don’t! It’s a lot of work, very stressful, and we’re not sure if it’s going to pay off! But if you’re going to ignore that and go ahead anyway, make sure you have a solid group of game masters and that before you start you’ve built up two or three months of content. Do you think you have enough? People solve things faster than you know: double the amount you think you need and you’ll be in the right neighborhood, probably. Without fail everything is always solved faster than expected, until you start expecting them to solve it in minutes.

Producing what felt like “enough” content was by far the biggest challenge, and I don’t know if I can say I actually succeeded. Most of the ARG content was generated by me alone, though I ran the major ideas past [Crawford] because he’s obviously the boss, but I had a lot of content that never got to see the light of day because of time/effort constraints.

Frog Fractions 2 Kickstarter
Art from the successful 2014 Kickstarter campaign for Frog Fractions 2.

Crawford said that the community helped to shape the game in ways they may not have even realized.

Crawford: When you're running something like this, so much of the time what people suggest might be happening is better than what's actually happening, and since it's a live thing you can actually go change it to that.

If I hadn't thought of “oh this ARG should lead to Frog Fractions 2” as soon as someone brought it up, I would have changed it to that. “Oh yeah, that's a good idea.”

That sort of phenomenon, the first time I saw that was when the writers of Lost were reading internet forums about Lost. I'm wondering whether at some point people are going to have a serious backlash against that sort of writing and design. In the meantime, it's a pretty fun way to run a public thing.

One the voracious puzzle crackers took that participation one step further, joining the puzzle creation team in the game’s final stretch.

Erica Newman: Before I joined the development side, I had been sad about a recent lack of content, and the narrowing of what could have been this huge, full universe of Frog Fraction-y things. When Jim encouraged me to start developing content, I realized I got to be the ARG I wanted to see in the world. I don't think Jim really knew what he was getting with me, as I am not a well-known game designer, but rather an academic ecologist with an enthusiasm for video games. But I do think we were all really happy with the results.

I directed the closing two months of the ARG. I worked with two puzzle designers, Justin Melvin (Firetruck) and Micah Edwards (Baron Mind) to write and test puzzles. I also made trippy entomological art (including a Bug Mars version of Humans of New York on Facebook) and Russian hacker videos, I wrote long letters for melancholic characters and placed them in the world, hired 3D-print artist Matt Bagshaw to create our commemorative trophy, and organized six musicians to write and perform new pieces of music for the ARG.

Newman realized she had a heavy burden, having to tie together not only several years of ARG narrative but the tone of the original game.

Newman: The real work that we put in was creating puzzles that thematically fit the ARG and moved the narrative forward, while not repeating the same puzzle mechanics. But one of the most challenging things for me was how to stay true to the aesthetic of Frog Fractions and the early part of the ARG. Both of those had sparse and disjointed narration, while still managing to being funny, occasionally mildly offensive but harmless, and yet totally wonder-inspiring.

To create the end of the ARG, I had to write enough narration, mostly through the puzzles themselves, that made all of the threads tie back together and make sense without spoiling the weirdness and mystery of it all. This was a great challenge to face, because the puzzle writers were excellent and everything clicked in our team.

In terms of becoming one of the content producers, I was psyched to have something deeply creative to work on after finishing my PhD. I particularly liked getting to share images of all the entomological research my husband and I have been doing for the better part of a decade. Those pieces of the ARG house bug jokes that I'm sure no one will get for a number of years, if ever.

When Newman took over, she found herself working as something of a double agent.

Newman: If you've ever read Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, it was a lot like that. Because the ARG was so huge and there was already so much content out in the world, there was a period that I was working on unsolved problems from the previous era — which I think are still unsolved! — while simultaneously producing the new content. I never tipped my hand to the community that I was involved on the dev side, so I had to be careful with what I talked about.

I had to stop trying to solve the previous era's puzzles at some point. But it was a real challenge for me to change my personality in the ARG chat room among the solvers, that is, to go from a very sincere puzzle solver to someone who was likable but not adding anything in terms of solutions.

Complicating matters was the existence of a second ARG, which involved inserting mysterious sigils into a bevy of indie games.

The connection of the two ARGs was revealed with the insertion of a sigil in Campo Santo’s Firewatch. Though some initially suspected a Frog Fractions connection, others were skeptical.

The sigil, in Firewatch

Bortnick: Of course the Sigil ARG being related to Frog Fractions 2 was posited often before that reveal, so many people had written it off as impossible because “FF2 already has its own ARG, they couldn’t be running two ARGs at the same time.” Well, turns out we can!

Though over two dozen different indie games were involved with the sigil ARG, Crawford found it surprisingly easy to get devs on board.

Crawford: They were almost to a developer excited about the idea. Yeah, they were all really into it. They all wanted to be part of the Frog Fractions 2 in some small way. Frog Fractions was really a developer's game, very much like a game that developers love. It seems like half the people I meet at GDC are people who've played it. They were all very excited to be part of it and throwing out ideas. They would implement the puzzle, but we would hash out what it should be together, so that was a fun process.

Once the connection between the two ARGs was found, players were led to an escape room in Portland where they obtained a key that could be combined with a giant red button designed to launch Frog Fractions 2.

That still didn’t answer the final question: Where was it? The answer is one that had been in the works since Crawford signed a deal to publish the game with Adult Swim Games.

Crawford: Part of the reason I needed a publisher was that I needed someone to pay to make the game that I'm putting Frog Fractions 2 in. I had talked to a bunch of people I know about where to hide it, and the best option really seemed to be to create a bespoke game just for it.

I had a friend (Craig Timpany of indie developer Mostly Tigerproof) who had an idea for like a fairy-themed city builder kind of a thing where you're building treehouses and curating your forests. We pitched it to them as a pair, where Glittermitten Grove and Frog Fractions 2 will be developed together and sold together and published together as a unit, but not marketed together because that's the thing. Frog Fractions 2 is hidden within it.

This was, at least, the story as Crawford initially related it. When I emailed Timpany at the address Crawford provided, Crawford admitted that “Craig Timpany” was an alias, saying, “I was reluctant to mention it initially, because I've been putting it together for so long.”

A screenshot from Glittermitten Grove

Now, all the secrets have been revealed. Though it’s probably impossible to calculate the impact of the concurrent ARGs on Frog Fractions 2, the game masters seem satisfied just to have injected a little wonder into the gaming world.

Newman: Because [Crawford and Bortnick] were gracious about letting my team go in whatever direction we wanted to, we wrote the last few months of the ARG as a series of interconnected, but standalone puzzles that could be engaged and solved rapidly, in order to build tension and excitement. In this sense, the tone was different from what the ARG had been previously. I had to design a big chunk of the ARG backwards, so that assets were already in place when we had other puzzles' solutions point to them. And I had to design pieces of the ARG that were never explored, because of player choices. I couldn't figure out how to do this on a whiteboard, so everything was just in my head for a really long time. Watching that all unfold has been sort of magical.

Crawford: I feel like the reason that people want that more than ever is that we live in a much less mysterious world now. It's impossible, especially gamers, because in the ’80s games were the most mysterious thing. It was a feature that every game got just by default. You would play this thing and not know what was going on, not understanding the systems. Even if you were playing it for a long time, it could still surprise you. Nowadays, developers have to work really hard to have that level of mystery in their game, or any level of mystery at all that isn't going to be spoiled immediately by people going on the internet to find out about it. Even the marketing, so many NES games, my only exposure to them was a tiny screenshot in a magazine. The whole game was a mystery that I could think about and wonder about.